If "Shake It Up" is such a great dance tune, how come actually dancing to it feels so dumb? Because, simply enough, that's how adept Ric Ocasek is at painting the self- conscious milieu of the socially maladroit.
As a title song, "Shake It Up" sets the quirky mise en scene of the Cars' latest album: T. Rex minimalism meets Stones sexuality in the repeating guitar strain, while a Greek chorus of synthesizers and effects boxes camouflages the two-chord simplicity of the verse; meanwhile, Ocasek's Don-Knotts-Does-Disco voice tries its trembling best to get down with the lyrics:
Dance all night, keep the beat
Don't you worry 'bout two left feet
Just shake it up In short, "Shake It Up" is only human, a welcome about-face from the technically smooth, emotionally distant performance on last year's "Panorama." There's still an emphasis on technology and precision, which at times gives the impression that Ocasek and company are merely playing Pac-Man on vinyl, but a new vulnerability in the lyrics and the romantic simplicity of the songs offer a retreat from the chilly electronic esoterica of past Cars efforts.
Take "I'm Not the One," a shuffling romantic lament that's by far the most sweetly compelling track they've ever recorded. It's difficult to separate Greg Hawkes' keyboard synthesizers from Elliot Easton's low- Fender guitar synthesizers, but that hardly matters in view of the dreamy textures the combined sounds produce. Seemingly, they've learned to tame their technical storms, the better for a little sentiment to shine through, and the result is a highly satisfying hook that grasps the soul rather than the brain.
Similarly, "Victim of Love" uses an armory of equipment not for its own sake, but to juxtapose the woebegone lyrics against a Beatly-bop, optimistic pop structure. It's a nice dose of irony that deserves -- and gets -- its own spotlight.
"Shake It Up" reflects lyrical as well as musical maturity. Sometimes Ocasek's abstractions get a little out of hand: "Cruiser" offers some interesting images ("Roman shoes and pretty hats / Glitter bombs that beat the beat"), but they don't quite fill the void of weirdness left by the death of Steely Dan. "A Dream Away" draws tighter connections ("Choke emotion lose control / Chicken counters fill your bowls"), but even these don't match the synapse-quick subliminal punch of Was (Not Was).
Still, the Cars have never before taken lyrical risks to rival their musical derring-do; even the failures here give a dimension to the songs that wasn't in evidence on, say, "Candy-O."
The lyrical thread running through many of these richly textured songs is simple enough: Perfection makes dreams unnecessary. Not an original sentiment, but one that's nicely limned on songs like "Victim of Love" ("When she gives in too soon / It's just not fair"), "Think It Over" ("How can I be sure you're the one for me / I only know that you wanted to be free") and the final cut, in which the protagonist plays it safe with his own feelings:
I heard stories about you
I'd like to think that they were true. . .
Be my maybe baby. . .
Keep one dream that won't come true
Be my maybe baby It's an inverted, if common, rock theme, i.e., "You shouldn't always get what you want, and if you try sometimes you might get more than you need." This type of emotional pose fits well with the Cars' jittery socio-sexual dissatisfaction.
Finally, it's uplifting to be reminded that minimalism did not originate with Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach," and that rhythmic experimentalism did not spring full-blown from the Bush of Ghosts. The Cars' new music takes its cues as much from T. Rex and even '60s instrumentalists (listen to the intro of "Maybe Baby") as from Polyrock or PiL. Like the Police, they use rhythm and repetition as departure points rather than ends in themselves, and unlike the latter groups, they'll likely take us somewhere with these ideas, rather than leave us stranded in some sterile movement of the day.
That's worth all their nervousness about their own humanity.
THE ALBUM -- The Cars, "Shake It Up," Elektra 5E 567.